At the founding of our nation, women, African Americans, those who were unable to read or write, poor people, and individuals with felony convictions were excluded from the ballot box. Over the course of our nation’s history, the right to vote has expanded to include African Americans and women. Additionally, poll taxes and literacy tests have been banned. As a result of felony disenfranchisement, six million people are still unable to vote because they are incarcerated, completing probation or parole, or are precluded from voting for having a felony conviction in their past.

Last year, the ACLU worked hard with many in-state groups in Florida to pass a ballot measure that amended the state constitution and restored voting rights to 1.4 million people with a felony conviction. The prior law, a Jim Crow-era relic intended to disenfranchise Black people, meant that even after completing probation and parole, people still weren’t restored as full member of our citizenry.

As we looked toward the 2020 presidential race to create a Rights for All platform, we wanted to push candidates to create a country where the right to vote was permanent. Where no citizen is deprived of the right to vote because of a conviction, whether or not they are incarcerated.

That’s why we’re asking all presidential candidates to end unjust laws that strip citizens of their fundamental right to vote due to criminal convictions, because we all — including those who are currently incarcerated — must have a voice in how we shape our society.

Voting is a fundamental right and the cornerstone of our democracy. Denying the right to vote to an entire class of citizens undermines our democracy and makes our society less inclusive. That is why we’re advocating that the right to vote should be preserved and should never be taken away from citizens as punishment.

We know people of color are disproportionately impacted by felony disenfranchisement. Many of these laws were passed during the Jim Crow era with the intent to bar minorities from voting. Disproportionate numbers of people of color continue to be prosecuted, incarcerated, and disenfranchised due to these laws. As of 2016, one in every 56 non-black voters lost their right to vote. Conversely, one in every 13 Black voters was disenfranchised.    

We also know that voting plays an important role in helping individuals with felony convictions return to society. Studies have shown that when individuals with a felony conviction participate in the democratic process, they have a lower rate of subsequent arrest. By denying people even the basic right to vote, we are only preventing them from having a stronger stake in their community and making it harder for them to successfully return to society.

This policy is not new. We already let those who are incarcerated vote in two states — Maine and Vermont — as well as Puerto Rico. Additionally, the concept of voting while incarcerated is quite common internationally. Canada, Ireland, Israel, South Africa, and many other countries do not place restrictions on voting for people who are incarcerated.

As the presidential race heats up, our volunteers are fanning out across the country to ask candidates if they support this policy. One of our activists in Iowa was able to get Bernie Sanders on the record agreeing to ensuring everyone can vote, and another spoke to Julian Castro who agreed to restore voting rights to those in prison and jail depending on their conviction. We will continue to question and push candidates to be bolder to ensure our next president will protect and advance the civil liberties and civil rights guaranteed to all of us in the Constitution, especially the right to vote.

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